Akhil Rawat
AIFF Media Team

NEW DELHI: Nothing is ever certain in the I-League. After the first half of the season, if anyone thought Mohammedan Sporting were going to be running away with the title, they were proved wrong last Sunday, with Real Kashmir dealing the Black and White Brigade their first loss of the campaign.

A shocking loss in many senses. A team which hadn’t conceded more than once in an entire match so far, let in three unanswered goals in 45 minutes. That too, against a team like Real Kashmir, who had lost their previous two away games to bottom-half teams Delhi FC and Namdhari FC. The Snow Leopards scintillatingly found form in the toughest away trip of the season to throw open the title race. Sreenidi Deccan also scored a last-gasp winner against Churchill Brothers in Vasco da Gama, cutting Mohammedan’s lead at the top to four points.

Round 13 of the I-League might have been depleted with three fixtures being postponed, but these two big results proved more than enough to make up for any missed drama. Things are about to heat up even more with non-stop action for the next 11 straight days.

Round 14 kicks off with Real Kashmir travelling to Sri Bhaini Sahib to face Rajasthan United FC on Friday at 2 pm. It will be important for the Snow Leopards to not get carried away with the big win and build consistency on the road. Rajasthan United have shifted base once again this season, playing out of the Namdhari Stadium now, which means it will be Real Kashmir’s third visit to Punjab. They will hope to make it third time lucky after losing on both occasions previously without scoring a single goal.

Later on Friday at 7 pm, Inter Kashi will host Gokulam Kerala FC in their newfound home, the Kalyani Stadium. Carlos Santamarina’s side returned with all three points from a difficult journey to Shillong Lajong thanks to new signing Gianni dos Santos’ solitary goal. Having been on the road across the length and breadth of the country in the first half of the campaign, it’s now finally time to settle down for Inter Kashi. Seven games in a row in Kalyani in the next one month, and coach Santamarina will be looking to make each of them count.

Their first opponents Gokulam Kerala are also eagerly awaiting a return to I-League action. The Malabarians had a somewhat underwhelming Kalinga Super Cup campaign, finishing bottom of their group with one point. They have undergone key changes over the winter break, losing some firepower with the departures of Edu Bedia, Nili Perdomo and Justine Emmanuel. However, new arrivals like Nikola Stojanovic, Matija Babovic, Pitu Viera and Mashoor Shereef will be raring to go, and so will be league top-scorer Alex Sanchez, who already has 12 strikes to his name.

On Saturday, two teams struggling for form, Churchill Brothers and Namdhari, go head-to-head at the Tilak Maidan at 4:30 pm. Abdou Karim Samb, on his Red Machines debut last Sunday, thought he had snatched a point for his side when he equalised in the 88th minute, only for Sreenidi to grab a winner even later. That condemned ninth-placed Churchill to their fifth loss of the season, meaning new head coach Francesc Bonet will look to earn his first Churchill win against none other than his former side Namdhari. The I-League newcomers have encountered a hard time so far, with just eight points in 11 games. Their meagre tally of nine goals is the lowest in the league, but they will hope new Spanish signing Iván Garrido could help change that figure.

However, finding themselves in even deeper trouble are bottom side TRAU FC. With just a win and a draw in 11 games, the Red Pythons sit four points away from safety. The winter signings of Sardor Jakhonov, Willian Reis, Ibrahima Baldé and Nuhu Seidu Issahak show their desperation for survival and have raised a glimmer of hope among their fans. The reinforcements will hope to right the wrongs of the season so far, beginning with the face-off against Delhi FC on Sunday at 7 pm in Kalyani.

But if there’s one side that will be truly desperate to win at all costs this weekend, it has got to be Mohammedan Sporting. There’s no room for complacency for Andrey Chernyshov’s men as they travel to Mizoram to face Aizawl FC on Saturday at 7 pm. For the hosts, who will be led by new North Macedonian head coach Stojkoski Bobi, it’s a golden chance to join the title hunt as a win will bring them to within five points of the leaders.

Unfortunately for Sreenidi Deccan, they will miss the opportunity of closing the gap on top for the time being as their clash against NEROCA FC at their new home in Shillong stands postponed.